INSIGHT: US EPR policy in focus after states pass legislation

Author: Janet Miranda

2021/07/16

HOUSTON (ICIS)--As the US state of Maine becomes the first state to enact an extended producer responsibility (EPR) law for plastic packaging, momentum behind recycling legislation only seems to be strengthening as a chemical trade group association backs an “American-designed” producer responsibility system to develop a circular economy.

A stewardship plan or EPR plan has long helped European countries with their waste management efforts by holding producers responsible for the end-of-life stage of plastic packaging.

The concept has slowly drifted into other parts of the world, including Canada, parts of Latin America and Asia, but until recently, EPR policies to deal with the issue of plastic waste were unlikely to turn into a reality in the US.

But as recycling policy shifts into incentivising the growth of a circular economy, many states have already put forth their own proposals to reduce plastic waste. Some of these include deposit return schemes, minimum recycled content usage, the adoption of chemical recycling and extended producer responsibility programmes.

In 2020, only 12% of plastics were recycled in the US with the rest disposed of by incineration, being placed in landfill, or exported to other countries. With 40% of Americans lacking equitable recycling programmes, according to the Recycling Partnership, many local governments and environmental stakeholders and trade groups including the American Chemistry Council (ACC) have turned to supporting a national EPR policy.

And even though support for producer responsibility programmes is growing, to date there has been one prominent proposal of a nationwide regulatory framework. The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act introduced at the US Senate has a provision for an EPR programme. However it has not seen any action since March.

The proposed legislation includes EPR policies on companies with annual revenues that exceed $1m or produce more than 1 tonnes/year of plastic, paper, glass and other material packaging.

STATES TAKE THE REINS
This week, Maine signed the first EPR bill into law in the country. The bill establishes a packaging stewardship programme to assess and collect payments from producers based on weight of packaging material sold. The bill covers plastic containers, carboard boxes and other non-recyclable packaging.

The LD 1541 bill excludes some packaging applications, such as beverage containers (since Maine already has a container deposit programme), long-term storage materials and paint containers.

Many environmental groups and plastic recycling groups have welcomed the move.

“With this new law, Maine residents will save millions of dollars and finally be on a path to a stable recycling system,” says Scott Cassel, CEO and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute. “It will also provide producers with the financial incentive to make more sustainable packaging.”

Under the new law, Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection will select and contract with a stewardship organisation to operate a packaging stewardship programme that will reimburse and assist municipalities in providing recycling services throughout the state. In addition some funds will go into financing recycling infrastructure and resident education.

That is where trade groups like the ACC disagree with the law, advocating instead for producer responsibility regulations that put all the money collected from producers back into the recycling system.

“Politicians should not use a producer responsibility system to rob the resources that come in to fund any pet projects that they would like. Unfortunately, the system that was designed in Maine seems to be on a path that will violate that principle,” says Joshua Baca, vice-president, plastics at the ACC.

Baca, and other packaging associations such as AMERIPEN, which has been critical of the bill, think Maine has “passed a flawed piece of legislation” because it creates an overly bureaucratic system.

“The way the system is being set up would create a bureaucratic nightmare. And it is unclear that the goals of recovering more material, increasing access, increasing collection, and increasing education would actually happen,” says Baca.

In Oregon, another EPR bill is currently awaiting the signature of governor Kate Brown. Senate Bill 582 establishes a producer responsibility programme for packaging, paper, and food serviceware. That bill also makes provision for increasing education and investments in recycling infrastructure and the programme will be run by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

In addition, it would establish operating and performance requirements for materials recovery facilities and creating a state-wide collection list.

“They definitely made progress in addressing some of our current concerns around ensuring that advanced recycling is recognised, but I still think the [Oregon] bill needs to go a little bit further in ensuring that any money collected in the system is reinvested into the system,” says Baca.

NATIONAL STANDARDS
The ACC’s recent shift into supporting producer responsibility programmes at a national level is an encouraging step into creating a national EPR programme, but it does not go far enough, according to expert Anthony Tusino, programme officer, policy and government affairs at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The WWF and the American Beverage Association have released principles that would lay the groundwork for a national recycling system that includes what they call a flexible EPR framework that is sensitive to the country’s regional differences.

“We conceptualise (this plan as) looking at the EPA regions to sort metrics and tracking areas but also allowing states and municipalities the flexibility to build on existing systems. We're not trying to recreate the wheel but ensuring that all of the recycling systems and investments and targets and business practices feed up to national goals for recyclability, recycled content and consumer access, to make sure that no one's getting left behind,” Tusino says.

This, coupled with minimum recycled content mandates, could increase the level of demand for recycled plastic and drive recycling rates. Many brand owners have been demonstrating efforts to make their products more sustainable. Palmolive’s launch of a bottle made of 100% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (R-PET) bottle, among others, is a case in point.

A national EPR policy, if passed into law, would likely overhaul to some degree the recycling system in the US, and of course, the top of the value chain – the resin producers.

While state legislation is currently filling in the gaps, a patchwork of regulations leads to increased costs for plastic producers. The establishment of a national EPR policy would remove the need for state legislation on the issue, resulting in a uniform regulatory framework.

“Consistency gives (plastic producers) the sort of certainty that they need to make investments in packaging redesign and recycling infrastructure, regardless of where they are,” says Tusino.

The WWF estimates that the US will need a $17bn investment in recycling technology and recycling infrastructure over the next five years to achieve a circular economy.

“That sounds like a lot but it's only half a percent of consumer-packaged goods sales. We really have a big opportunity to make the change now at a lower cost since that cost is only expected to go up as recycling infrastructure ages or as consumer packaging changes,” says Tusino.

Insight article by Janet Miranda

Thumbnail image shows packaging of plastic bottles at the brewery/Shutterstock